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This Clinton Machine Is A Tighter Ship

The New York senator has a seasoned political team that is ready to act -- if she decides to run for president.

December 31, 2006|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent much of the last month behind closed doors, putting the final touches on a presidential campaign-in-waiting.

Her hectic schedule has been crammed with private lunches and phone conversations with elected officials and political operatives. She has sounded out Democratic Party officials from New York to Des Moines about her chances and hired a cadre of new campaign aides.

And she has made time for television interviews, re-releases of her books and delicately timed appearances with her high-wattage husband.

It is all part of a political organization that has been under construction since the turbulent Clinton White House years and was bolstered by two successful Senate campaigns. Awaiting only her go-ahead -- with a decision expected in January -- the machine that Hillary built has the heft and advance billing of an election-year juggernaut.

It is a high-stakes fusion of her political world and her husband's, two camps with markedly different styles and, at times, competing agendas and egos. The test, should she decide to run, will be getting the two cultures to work together.

"Her organization is much different than the old Clinton organization," said New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on President Clinton's 1996 reelection effort. "She has a whole loyal national network of her own. They're all hard, tough people. The trick she'll have is to find a way to blend them in and keep them together."

Bill Clinton ran a loose and leaky ship during his two White House terms, and many in his old brain trust who are expected to return to the fold for a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign now have careers to tend and outside interests to promote.

By contrast, "Hillaryland" is a disciplined structure of her own design, a tight-knit realm populated by discreet, fiercely devoted aides who have been with the former first lady since her East Wing days, along with newer additions who serve on her Senate staff. Some wonder if her circle is too buffered.

"The danger she faces," one longtime Clinton intimate said, "is the problem of insularity. You saw that at times in the Clinton White House. She tends to filter a lot through her most trusted people. That's an advantage when things are going well. But you can get closed off when things are falling apart."

Her machine would nonetheless be tested early. Recent polls in New Hampshire and Iowa show Clinton would have stiff competition from two potential Democratic rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

"The challenge she'll have in the primaries is building something that's lean and supple, an operation that can turn on a dime," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey D. Garin.

Clinton's closest aide is, of course, her husband -- "the best strategist of his generation," Sheinkopf says. But their dynamic would make for a unique campaign with its own risks and opportunities.

The former president will have to restrain the urge to grab the spotlight. "It's her campaign, not his," Sheinkopf said.

During recent appearances together, intimates say, the former president has had to work to rein in his impulse to play to the crowd. "You can see him champing at the bit," one said.

Hillary Clinton has warmed on the stump, but party leaders still worry that Bill Clinton's mastery of the stage muffles her presence by comparison. And a recent spate of news accounts of the Clintons' marriage and reversed political roles have dredged up unwelcome memories of the Monica S. Lewinsky affair and the impeachment crisis.

In her Senate run this year, the Clintons often deployed separately across New York, operating like complementary vaudeville troupers. While the senator concentrated on working-class communities upstate, pushing economic hardship issues to win over independents and suburban Republicans, the former president secured the Democratic base in New York, hobnobbing with East Side donors and barnstorming in Harlem and elsewhere in Manhattan. She easily won reelection, taking 67% of the vote.

Most Clinton loyalists insist the couple would be a magnetic duo. "He's the best campaign weapon any Democrat can have -- and that includes his wife, who's superb in her own right," said John Catsimatidis, an influential New York supermarket chain owner who is a longtime Clinton donor.

After her husband, the senator depends most on her core staff. These aides dubbed their close-knit enclave Hillaryland after whimsical signs that sprouted inside the Little Rock transition office in 1992 to identify the camps working for Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and their spouses (the others were Clintonville, Goreville and Tipper Town). The self-mocking tag remained after the first lady's protectors circled the wagons during Whitewater, Travelgate and the impeachment.

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